British PM gets it: good business requires good, open data

Today, at the Open Government Partnership meeting in London, David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, has announced that the UK government is going to make the new register of company beneficial ownership public.

This is great news, because it shows the very top of the UK government understands what OpenCorporates has been saying for some time: that public open data on companies is not just about tackling corruption, money laundering and organised crime, but also about creating a straightforward, clear environment for business. And making it public is not just about making the information available to all, it’s the only way it will be high enough quality to be useful.

As the PM says:

There are so many wider benefits to making this information available to everyone. It’s better for businesses here – who will be able to better identify who really owns the companies they’re trading with. It’s better for developing countries – who will have easy access to all this data without submitting endless requests for each line of enquiry. And it’s better for us all to have an open system which everyone has access to –the more eyes that look at this information, the more accurate it will be.

Now comes the real work – making sure the register actually works. We’ve done a huge amount of work in this area, as part of building the world’s first open data corporate network database, and as you can read on our blog posts on the corporate control (we’ve just published the second one), God really is in the detail.

However, we think this is solvable, without putting a burden on the millions of straightforward SME’s for whom beneficial ownership means just the shareholding information (which is already public, though not available as contemporaneous data).

Done right, this will improve competition, too. We think there are 5 key elements to making this work, and particularly in fostering innovation, allowing those ‘many eyes’ and allowing business “to better identify who really owns the companies they’re trading with”:

  • Built on firm foundations – beneficial ownership after all is in most cases just the shareholder data, or the person who benefits/controls the company where this gives the wrong impression. So first the shareholder data held by Companies House (currently up to 3 years out of date, and low quality) needs to be fixed.
  • Contemporaneous – this information can change quickly for the most tricky companies (those not set up as straightforward businesses), such as ones for criminal purposes, Special Purpose Vehicles, and those that make up some large corporate networks.
  • Granular – bald statements of just a name (imagine a transliteration of a translation of Vlad the Destroyer in Arabic)
  • Open data – if the information isn’t a matter of public record, and available as machine-readable openly licenced data we won’t have many eyes checking the data, and we won’t allow the innovation that this can foster
  • Complete – the register needs to include all companies, including listed companies. Listed companies can be controlled by individuals (and many AIM companies are) and it’s important that subsidiaries of such corporations are linked back to their parents as data. It would be perverse in the extreme if the largest companies (e.g. G4S and Serco) and their subsidiaries did not have to live by the same rules as smaller companies.

But let’s not be pessimistic. This is a huge step forward in corporate transparency and accountability, and the UK, and the Prime Minister personally, should be strongly congratulated for making the UK the world leader in this. Rest assured, OpenCorporates is ready to help, and will incorporate the data as soon as its published.